'Why are schools and teachers seen as responsible for pupils' wellbeing and character development, rather than their parents?'
The actions of Michaela Community School in North London produced a rather visceral response on social media over the weekend. The anger was a reaction to reports that the free school had sent a letter to a parent threatening to put their child in "isolation", with a rationed lunch, if a bill for school dinners remained unpaid.
The reaction was exemplified by tweeter Teacher Roar, who, referring to the head Katherine Birbalsingh and her previous Conservative Party associations, tweeted: "Just awful. Tory ‘star’ headteacher threatens to put children in isolation if parent can’t afford school lunches."
Setting to one side the furore, what soon became clear was that the Brent free school had obviously made a conscious decision to tie the parent and the student together when it comes to disciplinary measures, in this case, with regards to school meals. I’m guessing they have a similar approach when it comes to school uniform and punctuality.
Indeed, "Lettergate" is only a small microcosm of a wider issue that is currently plaguing our education system, the question: "Who is responsible for what?"
Those critical of the school asked: "Why is a child being punished for something the parent hasn’t done? And what if the parent couldn’t afford to pay?"
The fact is, this was a school policy, set down in the parent/school agreement at the start of the academic year. I would guess that one of the reasons this policy exists in the first place is to ensure that all students in the school get a lunch. We know that in many schools, students end up drinking pop and eating crisps for lunch or don’t eat anything at all, sometimes because their parents haven’t provided it, sometimes out of choice. This can be to the detriment of learning. Rightly or wrongly, Michaela has taken the responsibility for organising a nutritious lunch out of the hands of the parent and the student.
This is part of a trend in this country for "nanny schools", to borrow the analogy of the nanny state. In this way the school is so much more than a school: it becomes a counselling centre, a community centre, a naughty step and even a soup kitchen. Schools have begun to take over more and more of the fundamental responsibilities previously expected of parents.
Well, partly because teachers are usually all-round good eggs. They naturally want to go the extra mile, whether that be in the classroom or beyond. They feel a moral imperative to do so. If they see a void, they want to fill it. If they see a problem in a child’s life, they want to fix it. I’m sure all the staff at Michaela fall into this bracket.
But let’s be clear; it should not be a teacher’s job to parent. Many teachers have children of their own. They have lives of their own, too.
Our government has precipitated this trend by gradually moving responsibility for exam performance (the key measure of a school's perceived quality) away from the student and their parents and on to the school. And because schools know that a happy and well-rounded child is more likely to achieve better exam results, it’s not just a moral imperative to fulfil this role but a professional one, too. It shouldn’t be the latter.
Michaela’s decision to administrate the lunches of all school students through a complex system of prepayments, reminder letters and isolation rooms is the perfect example of this "big school" in action. They didn’t trust enough parents to pack a lunchbox with a sandwich, some fruit and a yogurt every day. Not only that, perhaps they didn’t believe that enough students were going home, sitting around the dinner table and having a family meal, hence their "family lunch"?
This interventionist, zero-tolerance approach seems to extend to all parts of the school day and has been much criticised in some quarters. But if early results from the schools – and others that follow similar policies – are to be believed it seems to work.
This "support" culture has now extended across the educational landscape. The amount spent on support staff has doubled since 2011 while teacher spend has stagnated. There are more career advisers, student support assistants, pupil premium mentors, counsellors, teaching assistants than there ever have been. There are more breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, lunchtime clubs and summer schools than there ever have been. That’s why, slowly but surely, schools, as institutions, have become de facto parents to so many children in this country.
Passing the buck
With parents, government and society all passing the buck, it has now fallen on schools to teach "resilience", "grit" and "character"; to develop the very fabric of a child. But for all former education secretary Michael Gove’s enthusiasm for making state schools "feel like" private ones, funding cuts and freezes in teacher salaries mean that the government continues to take advantage of teachers good will and fervent resolve.
Meanwhile, with the responsibility for student success placed on the shoulders of our education system, that same system can now get a good kicking when things go wrong. Phrases like "schools failing students" and "schools failing to improve" and "schools coasting" have become commonplace in the educational narrative. "Fewer students working hard", "Fewer parents parenting" and "less support for teachers" are not headlines that suit a society that prefers things the way they are.
And that’s why I sympathise with Ms Birbalsingh. Not because I’m a teacher at Michaela or because I’m evangelical about a particular way of organising a school. Not because the letter her deputy head sent out was wisely worded or because her school chose to isolate a student based on their parent’s unwillingness to follow school policy. Both of these decisions caused a lot of understandable ire. I sympathise with her because she finds herself feeling that her school needs to become so much more than a school, every single day. She is caught, as most headteachers are, between the pressure to ensure "success" and the moral imperative to allow for failure. If its critics don’t want Michaela to be like it is, then someone else will need to take responsibility for what Michaela is trying to provide.
Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory